The Impossibility of Politics: Brecht, Manto and Two Itinerant Situations


Two writings of Bertold Brecht and Sadat Hasan Manto are joined by a realisation that in certain situations political openings become impossible. Strangely these are not stable or more correctly speaking static situations but are situations of mobility. Yet the conditions of mobility bring to us only spectres of deaths. Political openings towards transformation at least in a conventional sense are ruled out. The severity of itinerant situations at times makes it impossible for the migrant subjectivity to become political. German dramatist Bertold Brecht’s play, Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) and the short story on the Indian partition by the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto, Toba Tek Singh (1955) tell us of situations marked by an impossibility of politics. These two literary pieces critique existing political responses to the closures of the time – a war and a partition. They produce an aesthetic of empathy, and this irrespective of whatever the authors may have wanted to convey through these two writings. They replace politics as they become “acts of literature”. Precisely by refusing to suggest a political solution, they have presented an uncertain and delicate message, namely that politics does not solve everything. There are many situations on earth that prove a closure of politics, where perhaps aesthetics provides the opening. Aesthetic sensibility acquires fundamental importance in envisioning alternatives to capitalism. It makes the reach of understanding global while its roots may be local.

Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group, Kolkata, India. He belongs to the critical school of thinking. He has pioneered along with others peace studies programmes in South Asia and has worked extensively on issues of justice and rights in the context of conflicts in South Asia.

Ludger Hagedorn, IWM Permanent Fellow, was the evening's moderator.